American Journal of Law & Medicine

Earth's vanishing medicine cabinet: rain forest destruction and its impact on the pharmaceutical industry.

Todos tem direito ao meio ambiente ecologicamente equilibrado.(1) Everyone has the right to an ecologically balanced environment. In 1988, the Brazilian Constitutional Assembly incorporated this imperative into the Brazilian Constitution as part of a chapter on environmental protection.(2) After hundreds of years of environmental ignorance, our planet's inhabitants have experienced a growth of environmental awareness. One global environmental tragedy garnering substantial recent attention is the depletion of the planet's tropical rain forests.(3) In addition to eternally altering the human environment, rain forest destruction poses a serious threat to both the pharmaceutical industry and individuals in need of medical care. A substantial portion of existing pharmaceuticals are plant-based and animal-based, and the pharmaceutical industry continues to explore additional species for medicinal potential, particularly in tropical regions. As mass deforestation of these areas forces countless species into extinction, specimens yet to be analyzed for their pharmaceutical potential will be eternally lost.(4) As one noted conservationist explained, "Even severe pollution is reversible, but species extinction is irreversible."(5)

This Note will examine rain forest destruction, the threat this crisis poses to the pharmaceutical industry, and alternative solutions to this problem. Part I explains the role of plant-based and animal-based research in the pharmaceutical industry and its resurgence in recent years. Part II examines the tragedy of deforestation and the impact of this crisis on the pharmaceutical industry. Notably, rain forest depletion results in the loss of biodiversity, or the destruction of the living organisms on which plant-based and animal-based pharmaceutical research depends. Part III addresses the major cause of deforestation: the urgent need of developing nations for quick financial gain. An effective solution to the deforestation problem necessarily requires consideration of this factor. Part IV looks at international efforts to halt deforestation in order to maintain biodiversity, and Part V examines recent private efforts to achieve the same result. In both contexts, the intellectual property concerns associated with drug patents are relevant. Part VI concludes that success at preventing global rain forest destruction in order to preserve biodiversity requires involvement by all concerned parties--the pharmaceutical industry, governments of the developing nations that are host to the world's rain forests, and indigenous populations of the same. Most importantly, a successful solution will make the elimination of deforestation practices profitable for each of these actors and will compensate developing nations for the sustainable use of their precious resources.


Naturally occurring compounds provide the basis for a substantial portion of the world-wide pharmaceuticals. In the United States, approximately twenty-five percent of prescription drugs derive from plant extracts,(6) thirteen percent from microorganisms, and three percent from animals.(7) "[C]ompounds derived from plants, microbes, and animals were involved in developing all of the twenty best-selling drugs in the United States, drugs whose combined sales approached $6 billion in 1988."(8) In developing nations, upwards of eighty percent of the populations rely upon similar plant-based and animal-based medicines.(9)

History is rife with numerous examples of drugs derived from biological resources.(10) For example, digitalis, a drug widely used to treat congestive heart failure and other cardiac ailments, derives from the purple foxglove.(11) The roots of tropical shrubs of the Rauwolfia genus give the pharmaceutical industry reserpine for use as a sedative and for the treatment of high blood pressure.(12) The larvae of blowflies secrete a substance that helps in the healing of deep wounds.(13) A recently developed, plant-derived drug is the highly controversial taxol, a drug initially touted as a miracle in the treatment of ovarian, breast, and lung cancer.(14)

Tropical plants, animals, and insects are a particularly logical source to examine for medicinal potential, "since these species have had to develop complex chemical arsenals to survive against a myriad [of] attackers: other insects, fungi, viruses, and bacteria."(15) In fact, up to ten percent of some species of plants are made up of such a chemical arsenal "designed for defense against predators."(16) For example, capoten, a recently developed drug effective for the treatment of hypertension, is derived from venom of the deadly Brazilian pit vipers.(17) Similarly, physicians use curare, a poison used by Yanomani Indians on arrow tips, as a muscle relaxant.(18) Additionally, the saliva of the vampire annelid worm produces a drug for the treatment of rheumatism and contusions.(19)

Perhaps the most oft-cited success story of plant-derived pharmaceuticals is the Madagascar rosy periwinkle.(20) While screening the periwinkle for medicinal potential, United States scientists from Eli Lilly, a large drug company, isolated two powerful alkaloids.(21) One, vinblastine, has proven effective in fighting Hodgkin's disease, achieving an eighty percent remission rate, compared to the previous rate of only nineteen percent.(22) The second alkaloid, vincristine, has become effective in battling childhood leukemia, providing a ninety percent remission rate.(23) However, scientists have yet to synthesize these alkaloids and, consequently, remain dependent on large amounts of the actual periwinkle, which only produces one ounce of vincristine for every fifteen tons of periwinkle leaves.(24) This alkaloid sold in 1991 for $100,000 per pound. Sales of the two drugs now total $180 million a year.(25) Thus, to many, the Madagascar rosy periwinkle represents a win-win consequence of plant-based medicine. The medical community receives two powerful cancer-fighting drugs, while the pharmaceutical company reaps windfall profits from its discovery.(26)

A less successful but equally poignant example of the importance of plant-based drugs, particularly in the deforestation context, concerns the raging battle against the HIV virus. In 1987, a group of researchers collected approximately a kilogram of twigs, bark, and fruit from a Malaysian gum tree.(27) Tests conducted on the twigs in 1991 led to the isolation of a "compound that blocked the spread of the HIV-1 virus in human immune cell" in a lab.(28) Biologists immediately returned to the Malaysian swamp from which the samples were originally taken, only to find that the tree had been felled shortly after the original material was collected.(29) No similar tree, nor different tree yielding the same compound, has since been found.(30) Although tests had not yet been conducted on humans, the results looked promising in the possible eradication of the virus.(31) Unfortunately, because of the tragedy of deforestation, the scientific world may never be able to fully explore the potential cure which nature may have had to offer.

A rare second chance may exist in a vine native to the Cameroon rain forest, from which researchers at the National Cancer Institute isolated a compound that inhibits the reproduction of HIV in vitro.(32) Researchers have only been able to locate the vine in a small area of Cameroon's 740,000-acre rain forest.(33) While the location of the vine is currently known, thereby allowing for further medical research, the loss of the Malaysian gum tree serves as a calamitous reminder of the threat that deforestation poses to on-going pharmaceutical discoveries.

In recent decades, pharmaceutical research involving natural resources has gone through cycles of popularity for various reasons. Prior to the 1960s, many drug companies conducted plant-based and animal-based research in pursuit of pharmaceutical discoveries. With the advent of computer modeling techniques(34) in the 1960s, however, researchers switched their focus to the derivation of synthetic drugs in the laboratory.(35) Given the seeming wonders of synthetic research, analysis of natural compounds seemed excessively time-intensive and labor-intensive, as well as haphazard and relatively unproductive.(36) For example, only one plant or animal sample in 10,000 leads to a useful medication, while getting the drug to market generally costs over $200 million and takes ten years.(37) Problems such as seasonal and geographic variations in the chemical compositions and availability of plants can make plant-based research inconsistent and unpredictable.(38) Further, pure products of nature are nonpatentable, leaving pharmaceutical companies reluctant to invest in the development of plant-derived drugs to which they may not receive exclusive rights.(39) Consequently, from the 1960s to the 1980s, natural resources research slowed, and in 1980, not one U.S. company admitted to doing research in higher plants.(40)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, the pharmaceutical industry largely reverted back to traditional screening of plant and animal specimens from synthetic research.(41) Numerous realizations on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry prompted this change. First, natural resources are useful in part because tropical plants contain powerful chemical defenses,(42) many of which are too complex to be accurately replicated in a lab.(43) Additionally, scientists have already synthesized many of the substances which are reproducible.(44) Also, advances in biotechnology(45) and chemical prospecting techniques(46) in recent decades have made research based on natural compounds more cost effective, time efficient, and accurate.(47) Researchers also realized the utmost importance of maintaining a "diverse gene pool for new treatments," as many diseases eventually become resistant to current drugs.(48) Lastly, the commercial success of new plant-based pharmaceuticals provided the needed incentive for other drug companies to resume their plant-screening programs.(49) For example, by 1990, the United States' plant-based prescription drug market, which is twenty-five percent of all available prescription drugs, was worth $15 billion.(50)



The future success of natural resources research in the pharmaceutical industry clearly depends on the continued existence of compounds that can be analyzed for their medicinal potential.(51) However, this need for natural resources is seriously threatened by the deforestation of tropical regions, a crisis that has claimed a daunting quantity of rain forests and the resources contained therein.

While experts agree that the problem of deforestation is extensive, they are generally unable to precisely estimate the current rate of deforestation. Estimates of the deforestation rate of the world's tropical rain forests range from 27 million acres (the size of New York or Pennsylvania)(52) to 50 million acres (seventy times the size of Rhode Island)(53) per year. In terms of other geographic references, this annual destruction totals an area larger than that of the Netherlands and Switzerland combined.(54) One can also conceptualize this in smaller time increments: earth's inhabitants are destroying rain forests at the rate of one football field's worth every second(55) and at least fifty(56) to eighty(57) acres every minute. This deforestation represents a net loss of approximately two percent each year.(58) By 1989, tropical rain forests had been reduced to fifty-five percent of their original size.(59) If deforestation continues at this astronomical rate, the world's tropical rain forests will be completely and eternally destroyed within thirty years.(60)


Beyond the most obvious consequence of deforestation--the loss of mother nature and her inherent beauty--this practice has severe ramifications for all of the earth's inhabitants.(61) With regards to the medical field, the depletion of the planet's rain forests poses a threat to continued plant-based and animal-based research because deforestation is rapidly diminishing global biological diversity.(62)

Biological diversity, or biodiversity, represents "the totality of living things, embracing all species of organisms, big and little, on land and in the sea."(63) As with rates of deforestation, estimates regarding the number of species in existence are extremely imprecise.(64) Experts approximate the number of plant and animal species world-wide to range from 5 to 50 million, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million species regarded by biologists as the best approximation.(65) While tropical rain forests cover only five to seven percent of the globe's land surface, they contain more than half of all of the world's species,(66) a concentration known as "species exuberance."(67)

To date, scientists have identified merely 1.4 million species of these multitudinous organisms.(68) Despite the significant reliance on biological resources in the production of pharmaceuticals, only one(69) to three percent(70) of the 250,000 known flowering plants world-wide(71) have been fully explored for medicinal potential.(72) Given the current rate of deforestation,(73) about twenty-five percent of these known plants may be extinct by the year 2050,(74) if not sooner. …

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